California allows the lawful use of medical marijuana in the state with a valid proscription from a licensed doctor. However, recent developments in the law suggest that the protections for medical marijuana users are far narrower than may have been first thought.
Background on California’s medical marijuana law
California’s medical marijuana law came into existence in 1996 after voters in that state approved the measure through Proposition 215. Several other states have passed similar laws since then.
California’s law is known as the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. It has been codified as section 11362.5 of the state’s Health and Safety Code.
The law states that punishment for possession or cultivation of marijuana shall not apply to anyone who uses it for personal medical purposes, provided that they have received approval from a physician. The physician’s approval can be either written or oral.
The law also protects a medical marijuana patient’s “primary car giver” – defined as an individual designated by patient “who has consistently assumed responsibility for the housing, health, or safety of that person.”
It further states that “no physician in [California] shall be punished, or denied any right or privilege, for having recommended marijuana to a patient for medical purposes.”
There are some obvious limitations within the law itself. The marijuana in question must be solely for the patient’s own personal use in order to help alleviate a medical condition. The law does not allow a medical marijuana patent to sell marijuana to a third party. A patient’s “primary care giver” is not allowed to use the marijuana – merely to possess and cultivate it on behalf of the patient with a valid doctor’s recommendation. If the amount of marijuana possessed is clearly more than can be reasonably expected for one’s personal use, state authorities would still likely be able to charge you with possession.
Legal developments that have limited the impact of California’s medical marijuana law
If you think that California’s medical marijuana law allows you freely smoke it without consequence as long as you have a doctor’s approval, you might want to think again.
Although California has legalized the use of medical marijuana under state law, the federal government still considers the possession of cultivation of marijuana to be illegal under all circumstances. Therefore, even though you cannot be punished by state authorities for the use of medical marijuana under provisions of California’s law, you can still be arrested and prosecuted by federal authorities acting within the state.
Additionally, the California Supreme Court has recently ruled 5 to 2 that an employer can fire you for using medical marijuana – even if you only use it outside of working hours at home, and there is no proof that it has ever negatively affected your job performance.
The case [Ross v. RagingWire Telecommunications, Inc.] involved a computer technician by the name of Gary Ross. He had a valid doctor’s recommendation which allowed him to use medical marijuana in order to help relieve his chronic back pain.
Ross was hired by a company and was soon asked to take a drug test. He knew that the drug test would show a positive result for marijuana use, so he submitted his doctor’s prescription along with his urine sample. Ross thought that his doctor’s prescription would protect him from being fired. He even argued that his use of medical marijuana actually helped with his job performance since it was the only substance that consistently helped to relieve his back pain. However, his company still ended up terminating him for violation of their drug policy.
Ross sued under the state’s employment discrimination law and for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. However, the California Supreme Court sided with the company. The Court chose to interpret California’s medical marijuana law very narrowly, ruling that the text of the law only protected users against criminal prosecution from the state – nothing else.
The Court wrote, “No state law could completely legalize marijuana for medical purposes because the drug remains illegal under federal law…even for medical users. Instead of attempting the impossible…California’s voters merely exempted medical users and their primary caregivers from criminal liability under two specifically designated state statutes. Nothing in the text or history of the Compassionate Use Act suggests the voters intended the measure to address the respective rights and obligations of employers and employees…. G]iven the Compassionate Use Act’s modest objectives and the manner in which it was presented to the voters for adoption, we have no reason to conclude the voters intended to speak so broadly, and in a context so far removed from the criminal law, as to require employers to accommodate marijuana use.”
Because of this recent ruling, use of medical marijuana in California will not guarantee workplace protections for you (although the law still specifically protects those doctors who recommend medical marijuana to patients).
Ross v. RagingWire Telecommunications, Inc. only addressed the specific context of employment in regards to medical marijuana use. However, the scope of the Court’s decision presents questions in other contexts as well. For instance, let us imagine that you are a medical marijuana user who lives in a rent controlled apartment in California. Your landlord is eager to evict you in order to rent to a new tenant whom he could charge higher rents to. However, your local rent control ordinance prevents him from evicting you without justifiable cause.
Until the Ross case, it may have been presumed that patients would be protected from eviction based solely on their valid use of medical marijuana. This may still in fact be the case. However, the issue is now at least in potential doubt due to the Court’s ruling. If the Court interprets California’s medical marijuana law as only offering protections against state criminal liability and nothing else, then tenants who use it may be putting themselves at risk from disapproving landlords. But once again, there is currently no case dealing with this question and it may take a new case to definitively answer it.
Bottom line: If you are a user of medical marijuana user in California, it may still be wise to use discretion and consider potential consequences outside of the protections from state criminal prosecution. Unless the people or lawmakers of California vote to explicitly expand the protections for using medical marijuana, the courts are now likely to interpret the law’s protections rather narrowly.
[Note from HandelontheLaw.com: This article is to be used as an educational guide only and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers of this article are advised to seek an attorney if a legal consultation is needed. Laws may vary by state and are subject to change, thus the accuracy of this information can not be guaranteed. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk. Neither HandelontheLaw.com, or any of its affiliates, shall have any liability stemming from this article.]
Note from HandelontheLaw.com: This article is to be used as an educational guide only and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers of this article are advised to seek an attorney if a legal consultation is needed. Laws may vary by state and are subject to change, thus the accuracy of this information can not be guaranteed. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk. Neither the author, handelonthelaw.com, or any of its affiliates shall have any liability stemming from this article.